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Long Beach State loses to Hawaii as bid for another NCAA volleyball title falls short

Hawaii players celebrate after beating Long Beach State to win the NCAA men's college volleyball national title May 7, 2022.
Hawaii players celebrate after sweeping Long Beach State on Saturday at Pauley Pavilion to win a second straight NCAA men’s volleyball title. The Beach were seeking a third national crown in five years.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)
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Long Beach State players lined up dutifully at the baseline to receive trophies they never planned to receive. Tears started welling in their eyes. Unlike those coming from Hawaii players on the other side of the net, these were not happy.

Back where its ascent to the top of the sport began in 2018, Long Beach State’s bid for a third national championship in five years ended in a sweep by Big West rival Hawaii on Saturday. The Rainbow Warriors denied the Beach dynasty and repeated as national champions, sweeping top-seeded Long Beach State for the second consecutive match 25-22, 25-21, 25-20.

After not getting swept since 2019, Long Beach State (21-6) finished the year with two three-set losses in its last three matches. Hawaii also upset Long Beach State in the Big West tournament, winning each set by two-point margins.

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Long Beach State, the top seed in the NCAA men’s volleyball tournament, wasn’t always dominant. Here’s how the program became a perennial title contender.

It’s been six years since the Beach suffered multiple sweeps in the same season while the team established itself as a national powerhouse. Only three players remained from the 2019 team that won Long Beach State’s second consecutive national title, but with a different cast and the trauma of a pandemic, the Beach remained a championship contender this season.

“I was so invigorated coaching these guys this year for their energy and their effort and their resolve and their commitment to this program and their craft,” Long Beach State coach Alan Knipe said. “It’s a disappointing loss, it hurts, but I love this group.”

Hawaii and Long Beach State have shared the past four national championships. Long Beach State won in 2018, defeating UCLA at Pauley Pavilion, and 2019, getting past Hawaii at Walter Pyramid. After COVID-19 canceled the 2020 tournament, Hawaii began its reign, winning the program’s first NCAA championship.

The Rainbow Warriors (27-5) lived up to their billing as the best blocking team in the country Saturday. Hawaii, which led the nation with 2.89 blocks per set entering the NCAA tournament, had eight blocks, including four in the first set.

The Beach hit .304, well below their .353 season average, and squandered a five-point lead in the second set, relinquishing all momentum to Hawaii and its vocal fans who waved plastic Ti leaves and Hawaiian flags.

Long Beach State outside hitter Alex Nikolov celebrates a point over Hawaii on May 7, 2022.
Long Beach State outside hitter Alex Nikolov, who finished with 20 kills, reacts after a point against Hawaii.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

Alex Nikolov, the first freshman to win the national player of the year award, led Long Beach State with 20 kills on 37 attempts with two service aces. Redshirt junior Spencer Olivier, who joined Nikolov on the all-tournament team, had 11 kills and 10 digs.

The last time these teams met in a national championship game, Long Beach State delighted its home crowd of 3,824 with the program’s second consecutive national title. Stars of that team, including outside hitters TJ DeFalco and Kyle Ensing and setter Josh Tuaniga, were among the 5,784 at Pauley Pavilion on Saturday, hopeful that the Beach’s reign could continue.

But even that stacked roster that won back-to-back titles had to wait for its moment. The seniors credited with bringing Long Beach State back to the top lost in the national semifinal in back-to-back years before breaking through.

This team, with only one senior and a freshman who is already the best player in the country, could be on a similar path.

“We’ll be back,” sophomore libero Mason Briggs said.

Long Beach State players are fired up after earning a point against Hawaii during the NCAA men's volleyball title match.
Beach players are fired up after they earned a point against the Rainbow Warriors. Hawaii and Long Beach State have won the last four national championships.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

Briggs, an American Volleyball Coaches Assn. first-team All-American, called the NCAA tournament the biggest stage you can play on as a collegiate men’s volleyball player. Hawaii got to soak up the final moments in the spotlight as players dropped to the floor in celebration after Long Beach State was called for a net infraction on the final point.

Hawaii players pulled on championship hats and T-shirts and at the center of their dog pile, they raised the championship trophy.

Nikolov, with his arms draped over his teammates’ shoulders in a tight Long Beach State huddle, peeked over his shoulder at the celebration.

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